Building a Season

by Richard A Salkin

What does it take to bring a Jacksonville Symphony season to life? Oh, if you only knew. 

There’s no defined recipe, no secret sauce. It’s more like assessing what ingredients you have on hand—or expect to have—and fashioning something tasty and nourishing. With a limited supply of great soloists and conductors, the process starts as much as five years in advance.

A symphony season takes shape through the dedication and guidance of a few key people. Together they plan, they negotiate, they tweak. And ultimately they arrive at a performance series that’s balanced, exciting and artistically optimized.

It’s a little like planning a meal, according to Symphony CEO Robert Massey. “Maybe there’s an exciting new dish you’ve always wanted to try, sitting next to comfort food, like meat loaf, on the plate. You have to balance the palate.”

The Big Picture

With a coordinated and cordial working relationship, Massey, Lewis and Tony Nickle, director of artistic operations, are largely responsible for the initial big-picture planning that dictates what we hear—what’s on the menu—for Masterworks this season. “We start with what the Music Director wants, with his vision,” Massey said. “Tony and I step back at first. We try to nail down specific concert dates, avoiding things like the Florida-Georgia game. Then we look for ways to expand on Courtney’s vision, to identify anything that’s missing. Maybe it’s a work by major Russian composer or a piece featuring a certain instrument.”

For Courtney Lewis this season is all about continuity and growth. “It’s a continuation of the artistic vision I talked about last year,” he said. Expect liberal use of the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus and vocal soloists taking center stage. And expect a mix of music people already know and love, along with new pieces the orchestra hasn’t played in the past. That last part includes works that are either relatively recent—like like György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto (completed in 1988)—or new to Jacksonville audiences, like Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, composed in 1900 but never before performed locally.

Balancing established works with new ones is the goal. “It’s very important to play music of today as well as the past,” Lewis said. “Pushing the repertoire will help the orchestra grow. And it tells us something about ourselves.” For example, Asyla, written by Thomas Adès in 1997 and performed here last season, “generated a tremendous amount of dialog. It was exciting to see the community grappling with it: Some people loved it, some hated it. But they were talking about it.” He added that reaction to modern music should parallel the way people view modern art. “Do we not look at artwork of today?” By the same reasoning he wants audiences to be open to experiencing newer music in the same way.

Selecting the repertoire isn’t all about Lewis’ preferences. Massey said there’s a formal Artistic Advisory Committee that makes recommendations. He has his own wish list, too, along with a separate list of pieces others have requested. These are all worked into the menu, as appropriate.

Filling In

Once the broad outlines are established, building the season becomes a matter of fitting the pieces together. That presents a series of challenges. This year’s Masterworks series expands from 10 to 12 concerts, of which Lewis will conduct eight. The remaining four concerts feature other conductors—Assistant Conductor Nathan Aspinall, as well as visitors Jeannette Sorrell, Hugh Wolff and Karina Canellakis.

An added challenge for Massey is working so far in advance. “I have calendars for the next seven years on my desk,” he said. “Once the dates are concrete we turn our attention to getting guest artists.” With up to three years of lead time for booking soloists, he often has to account for unknowables. “We have to anticipate, pencil some things in,” he explained, “and be prepared to revise as necessary. We’re not as nimble as smaller arts organizations. We’re more like an aircraft carrier. We can’t turn on a dime.”

The Go-To Guy for Logistics

“Once I have the list of possibilities, I reach out to agencies and managers who represent the artists we have in mind,” Nickle continued. “We check availability, get a fee quote and determine how that fits into what we have budgeted. Then there’s a negotiation process. If the dates are compatible for rehearsals and performances, we nail down the other terms, like travel and other details.”

One of the most challenging aspects in creating a season is “finding a way to get everything we want and still stay within overall budget,” Nickle said. “That affects the negotiation process. Sometimes we might need to find someone a little less established who charges a lower fee,” he explained, adding that many young up-and-coming pianists today possess top-notch technical skills. The hard part is to find one who also has strong artistic chops.

“It’s not unlike the Olympics,” Nickel said. “A lot of records don’t stand anymore. We refine our training with each generation. So the technical proficiency keeps increasing over time.” With a bar that keeps getting raised, what makes a great soloist stand out in today’s hypercompetitive world is artistic excellence. Flawless technique is the price of admission.

Planning for Pops

The process is similar, but not identical, for putting together a season of Pops programs. There’s a little less gourmet, a little more fun. No one knows that process better than Vice President of Marketing Peter Gladstone, who works with Massey and Nickle to organize a whole separate series of 12 performances. “Instead of more formal works like you see in the Masterworks series, the Pops concerts are lighter, featuring more popular music, and geared for a wider audience,” Gladstone said. “They’re a great way to give young people their first experience hearing an orchestra play live.”

From a planning perspective, the main difference between Pops and Masterworks is that “many of the Pops concerts feature performances that are already assembled,” said Massey. “We can grow our own shows—Michael Krajewski has done an incredible job with those—or do arrangements from blockbuster movies—or we can go with an existing show.” There’s a lot more diversity with Pops, Gladstone added. “We build the series based on what the community wants to see and hear.”

With all that planning, this year’s season offers something for everyone. No matter what your taste, you’ll find something healthy, tasty and satisfying. Bon appétit.

The complete cover story is in the September-November Encore.

View the entire Symphony schedule here

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